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Archive for January, 2009

Lord Drayson, UK science and the credit crunch: picking winners is back

By Jon Agar, on 26 January 2009

Lord Drayson, the science and innovation minister, appeared before the House of Commons’ Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills committee today. He was lightly grilled about the task of putting science at the heart of government policy, before facing a ‘question time’. (Drayson is a peer and therefore cannot be quizzed in the lower house. This cozy question time session was designed to substitute the scrutiny an MP would receive.)

So what was learned about the new minister?

It seems that due to the global economic downturn, a science policy of picking winners is back. Asked whether innovation in large and small businesses should be a casualty of current economic conditions, Drayson argued that there was now pressure to focus on areas where the UK has strategic advantage. He pointed to opportunities in the life sciences made possible by the NHS, as well as the earth sciences, as two potentially favoured areas. ‘There will need to be more concentration’, he concluded. Asked bluntly if he had the courage to take hard decisions to drop unfavoured areas, he replied ‘yes’.

Other issues

Lord Drayson considers the literature on science and innovation to be ‘patchy’ at best. His examples of good literature seemed to be rather old clustering studies.

Lord Drayson also offered some career advice. To post-docs struggling with remaining in academia, he suggested, first, school teaching, and second, starting a spin-off. To academics, he suggested that spells in industry should be encouraged by future policies.

Calm, measured, and speaking in complete paragraphs, Lord Drayson did not ruffle feathers. The IUSS committee itself was understrength – only five MPs turned up (Phil Willis, Evan Harris, Gordon Marsden, Ian Stewart and Ian Gibson). No Conservative member appeared.

Obama Science Policy: Restoration Science?

By Jon Agar, on 21 January 2009

“We will restore science to its rightful place” announced Barack Obama in his inaugural speech.


The question, of course, is what place was he thinking of? Will it be the “science” of before the pesudo-Lysenkoism of the Bush years? In the immediate context of the speech (see below) the “science” he has in mind seems to be nothing new: science as the well-spring of innovation, new technology and wealth. However, autonomy and increased federal funds do not necessarily run together.

“For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act – not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.”

Comments on Constant Touch?

By Jon Agar, on 14 January 2009

I wrote Constant Touch because I was struck by how little was known about this object which, suddenly, we all carry around. Where did it come from? And why? Mobiles – cellphones – mean different things for different cultures. Yet it’s also a technology that makes the globe global, through the spread of standards and ambitions of companies. It’s also a technology which has never stood still, which is why my global history needs updating.

If you have comments, corrections or any other feedback on Constant Touch: a Global History of the Mobile Phone, then reply below.